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A Teen’s International Space Station Experiment Will Help Us Colonize Mars

15-year-old Alia Almansoori got to watch her experiment get launched into space Monday.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Aug 15 2017, 5:21pm

Almansoori geeking out during a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. Image: Haitham Almussawi/United Arab Emirates US Embassy

On Monday, Alia Almansoori watched an experiment she designed launch from the Kennedy Space Center. But Almansoori isn't a NASA scientist or an astronaut; She's a 15-year-old student from Dubai.

"It's crazy," Almansoori said during a NASATV interview. "I want to be an astronaut when I grow up, so it's amazing that I'll get to actually see astronauts doing my experiment in space."

Almansoori is the winner of the "Genes in Space" competition, run by Boeing and miniPCR, which challenges student from grades 7 through 12 to design experiments that will help uncover how space impacts DNA. The experiment was among cargo and supplies for the ISS sent aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. Her experiment will study heat-shock proteins, a group of protective proteins that our body produces in response to stressors such as heat, cold, and UV light.

The young scientist wanted to find out if the intense radiation in space stimulates the production of heat-shock proteins, so she designed an experiment that will determine whether space conditions activate the genes that produce these proteins. It will advance findings from earlier DNA in space studies, including the first student-designed "Genes in Space" experiment, which investigated epigenetic modification of DNA in microgravity.

"I've always been interested in protecting the body from the inside out rather than the outside in from, like, radiation, instead of wearing a suit," Almansoori said. "If we can detect these genes turning on in space, maybe we can go on to exploring the differences in their expression."

It's a small step towards a better understanding of how human bodies react to the conditions of space travel and what we can do to protect them, which will come in particularly handy for extended missions, such as traveling to Mars.

"Actually, I want to be one of the first astronauts to go to Mars," Almansoori said. "It's a big dream, but there is no 'impossible.'"

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